Chase Hughes

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Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

The Washington Wizards were so truly terrible on the defensive end last season that they didn't discriminate towards any areas of the game.

Were they bad at defending threes? Yeah, they were 26th in the NBA in threes allowed (12.1/g) and 27th in opponent three-point percentage (37.0).

What about protecting the rim? Yeah, that too. The Wizards allowed more field goals within five feet of the rim (22.1/g) than any other team and the third-highest percentage (64.2) from that range. 

Collectively, it all added up to the 28th-ranked unit based on defensive rating (113.9), the highest in Washington franchise history. And they allowed the second-most points (116.9) of any team in the league.

The thing is, the Wizards didn't do a ton to address their defense this offseason, at least in the short-term. Though they likely set themselves up to be better down the road, most of the players they brought in who can help now aren't defensive guys.

C.J. Miles, Moe Wagner, and Davis Bertans are shooters. Rui Hachimura is known far more for his scoring than his defense. And Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas at the point guard spot aren't exactly defensive stoppers.

If the Wizards are to improve defensively this season, even marginally, it will have to be due to players becoming better on that end than they have been in the past. And there is one player in particular who can make the biggest difference.

That would be third-year center Thomas Bryant, who has not been a plus-defensive player so far in his career but is only 22 years old. He hasn't been much of a rim protector previously, but he possesses some natural abilities that suggest he has the potential to become one. He is a high-energy player with long arms, fairly quick feet and a willingness to play through contact.

Bryant knows he holds the key to the Wizards' defensive ceiling.

"I have to be one of those guys to make a big difference. A big man can be the anchor for the defense. I have to take that responsibility to heart every day, whether it's in practice or the game," he said.

Bryant averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Wizards, but only 0.9 blocks. His per-36 blocks average was 1.6, which was tied for 30th in the NBA. 

But for Bryant, and all big men, it's not just about blocking shots. It's about altering shots and the best rim protectors dominate in that regard. Though the stat can't be found on Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, the Wizards track it and pay close attention.

"Defensively, he definitely has to work and he has to improve," head coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant. 

"The two or three shots that players block is really good, but there are a thousand other plays that they can be in the wrong spot that they have to work on. He has to be in the right spot, protecting the paint and being in the paint to not allow guys even in there."

Bryant said altering shots has been a big point of emphasis for him leading up to the 2019-20 season. And in that process, he's trying to be more talkative on the floor to help his teammates who can't see behind them when defending guards.

"I'm starting to keep my hands up and my arms up, just verbalizing out there on the defensive end. I'm trying to be more engaged and that way my teammates are more engaged," Bryant said.

Ultimately, the Wizards will need more from everyone on their defense. One of their problems with rim protection is that guards can penetrate off the dribble too easily. By the time they meet Bryant at the rim, they have a full head of steam.

There are also, of course, way too many threes going in, and those count more. Even if Bryant became a lesser version of Rudy Gobert, he would need some help.

But no one else on the Wizards roster arguably presents the same short-term upside that Bryant does. If he figures it out on defense, it could make a world of difference for a team that needs it.

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Max Scherzer is rewriting his postseason legacy before our eyes

Max Scherzer is rewriting his postseason legacy before our eyes

Unless you're Daniel Hudson's newborn baby, you should be old enough to remember there once was a time Max Scherzer struggled on the postseason stage.

There was a time, not long ago, that Scherzer was being compared to Clayton Kershaw. Maybe his name wasn't in the same sentence when it comes to the dichotomy of regular season success and postseason failure, but it was in the same paragraph.

But in a matter of eight days and three outings, one relief appearance and two starts, Scherzer has rewritten his postseason legacy to a significant degree. Max is starting to look like Max.

Consider this: before this magical October run began for the Nationals, they had lost all four of his postseason appearances going back to 2016. In these playoffs, they have won all four games he's pitched in.

Saturday night, a 3-1 win for the Nationals in Game 2 of the NLCS, was a masterpiece. Scherzer overcame command issues early on to go seven scoreless innings with only one hit and two walks allowed. He struck out 11 and just barely outdueled Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright to hand the Nats a victory.

Scherzer didn't allow his first hit until the seventh when Paul Goldschmidt smacked a single to left field that Juan Soto may have had if he wasn't playing deeper than usual. Rarely did Scherzer even flirt with trouble, and when he did, he quickly escaped.

Like, in the first inning when he walked Kolten Wong and then saw him steal second. Scherzer then struck out Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals' best two hitters.

Scherzer was in a bad spot in the fifth inning when he went down 3-0 to Matt Carpenter with one out. So, he reached back and threw six straight strikes to earn two punchouts and end the frame.

Scherzer was dominant and by mid-game was strutting, stalking and stomping around the mound like he owned the place. He toyed with the Cardinals' lineup, dashing his deep arsenal of pitches to all quadrants of the strike zone.

Scherzer's no-hit bid lasted until the seventh inning, which was technically a step backward from what his teammate Anibal Sanchez did in Game 1. Sanchez took his no-no until there were two outs in the eighth. 

Yes, the Nationals have had two starting pitchers go at least six hitless innings to begin Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. They are the seventh teammates to go back-to-back postseason games by starting with four or more hitless frames. The last guys to do it did so in the 2013 ALCS, two then-Tigers pitchers named Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. Thank you, ESPN, for that unbelievable stat.

What Sanchez and Scherzer have done is give Nationals fans something they have never quite felt before; uneventful, business-like postseason wins. After all this franchise has been through since 2012, now the wins are coming easy. Nationals pitchers are handling the Cardinals lineup like they are playing the Marlins in mid-May.

In the big picture, Scherzer is telling those who have criticized his postseason career (like me) to take a seat. Despite holding a 3.20 ERA for his career in the regular season, his postseason mark sat at 3.83 after the Nats' NL Wild Card win over the Brewers. Three outings later, that number has dropped to 3.35. 

And, again according to ESPN, Scherzer has now taken five no-hit bids into the sixth inning or later in the postseason. That's three more than any other pitcher.

Scherzer has reinstalled himself as an ace in October and the Nationals have a 2-0 series lead as they head home for Game 3 on Monday. That means they are two wins away from going to the World Series, where a D.C. baseball team has not been since 1933.

And up next awaiting the Cardinals is Stephen Strasburg, who has been a machine for the Nationals in the playoffs throughout his career. The Nationals are defying expectations, taking care of business and lowering blood pressure all around the Washington area in the process.

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Add Anibal Sánchez's NLCS Game 1 start to best performances in Nats playoff history

Add Anibal Sánchez's NLCS Game 1 start to best performances in Nats playoff history

Anibal Sánchez's name can officially be added to the still short, but growing list of Nationals postseason heroes. 

Put him up there with Juan Soto, who had the go-ahead RBI against the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game, and Howie Kendrick, who hit a grand slam in the 10th inning of Game 5 against the Dodgers on Wednesday to push the Nats to their first NL Championship Series. 

Jayson Werth is certainly on there thanks to his walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. And Stephen Strasburg has already had a few memorable moments, including his Game 4 start against the Cubs in 2017 and his Game 2 start vs. the Dodgers on Oct. 4.

But Sánchez now owns claim to something that cannot be disputed. He has thrown the best start in Nationals playoff history. 

He was surgical on Friday night against a St. Louis Cardinals team that in their previous game put up 10 runs in the first inning alone. He went 7 2/3 shutout innings with only one hit and one walk allowed and two hit batters.

Sanchez didn't allow a single baserunner until the fourth inning and his lone hit was to the very last batter he faced. He was four outs away from just the third no-hitter in MLB postseason history. 

Though he fell short of that distinction, he already distinguished himself in D.C. baseball lore. It was the longest start without allowing a run for a Washington pitcher since Earl Whitehill pitched a shutout in the 1933 World Series against the New York Giants. Walter Johnson also went a full nine without giving up a run in the 1924 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But that's it, those are the only two pitchers ever to go further in a Washington jersey without giving up a run. Only one other pitcher in franchise history, Ray Burris of the Montreal Expos, threw more shutout innings in a postseason start. He also threw a shutout back in the 1981 NLCS against the Dodgers.

There have been other strong pitching performances by Nats pitchers in October, but nothing qutie like what Sanchez pulled off on Friday night. The candidates for second-best playoff start by a Nats pitcher would be Max Scherzer in Game 4 of this year's NLDS (7 IP, ER), Strasburg in that Game 4 against the Cubs in 2017 (7 IP, 0 ER, 12 SO), Strasburg in Game 1 of that series (7 IP, 2 R, 0 ER, 10 SO) and Doug Fister in Game 3 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants (7 IP, 0 ER).

But Sánchez clearly has them beat both given the numbers he produced and the fact it was in a deeper round of the playoffs. It also, of course, went way beyond the stats.

The Nationals were desperate to have Sanchez go deep in this game because of the state of their bullpen, which was already a concern before closer Daniel Hudson left the team on the paternity list. With him unavailable, Sánchez's ideal start would include going at least 7 2/3 innings to create a bridge to Sean Doolittle, and that is exactly what he did. The Nats used only two pitchers to escape with a 2-0 victory and only 10 total players because there were no pinch-hitters.

Sánchez stepped up and delivered a gem in the biggest game in Nats history so far. It was the best outing of Sanchez' postseason career, though not by much. He's made a habit of doing this on baseball's biggest stage.

Sánchez also threw seven scoreless frames in Game 2 of the 2012 ALCS when he was with the Tigers. And he took a no-hitter through six innings in Game 1 of the ALCS back in 2013. Scherzer actually started Game 2 of that series and will do the same for the Nats on Saturday.

Sánchez has put together quite the postseason career to this point. While his regular season career ERA sits at a modest 3.98, it plummets to 2.57 in the playoffs. The sample size isn't all that small either, now at 56 innings spanning five different postseasons.

Considering that, one could make the argument the Nats have a Big Four and not just a Big Three when it comes to the playoffs. Sanchez is often overshadowed by Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, but his October results speak for themselves.

Sánchez is now through 12.2 innings this postseason with the Nats having only allowed one run. That should make them feel very good about having him pitch again in this series, which has him lined up to throw Game 5.

The Nats are now up 1-0 on the Cardinals, three wins away from a World Series berth. And they have their rotation lined up to be Scherzer in Game 2, Strasburg in Game 3 and Corbin in Game 4. If necessary, Sánchez would throw Game 5, Scherzer would take Game 6 and Strasburg would be ready for a Game 7.

That doesn't sound good for St. Louis.

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